Through four games, Iowa is making a living at running the ball against its opponents. The Hawkeyes are averaging 212 yards on the ground and 5.1 yards per carry. Fred Russell leads the way with 494 yards, a 5.7-yard average and three TDs. Arizona State also had a very strong run defense, but Iowa's offensive line and Russell's moves wore them down as the game went along. Freshman tailback Albert Young may make an appearance on Saturday. Advantage: IOWA.
Iowa pass offense vs. Michigan State pass defense: Nate Chandler had a strong showing against the Sun Devils last Saturday and proved that he could bounce back from some early struggles in that game. The Hawkeyes will need another big effort from their senior QB as the Spartans are a little vulnerable against the pass. Of course, Chandler will have to do this without his top two receivers, Mo Brown and Ed Hinkel, who are both injured. However, Ramon Ochoa looked very good last Saturday, and freshmen Calvin Davis and James Townsend should be ready to contribute.
While the Spartans were shutting down their opponents' running attacks the last two games, it was a little different story against the pass. Louisiana Tech and Notre Dame combined for 638 passing yards and 4 TDs, but threw 5 interceptions. Michigan State also recorded three sacks in each of those games. Advantage: IOWA.
Michigan State run offense vs. Iowa run defense: Jaren Hayes is the leading ground gainer for the Spartans. The 5-9 sophomore has 338 yards on 68 carries (5.0-yard average) and a pair of TDs. Tyrell Dortch is a little bigger than Hayes and has 147 yards (4.3-yard average).
Iowa has allowed an average of 94 yards on the ground to its four opponents…at an average of 2.6 yards per carry. If the defensive linemen don't stuff the run for the Hawks, one of their speedy linebackers — Chad Greenway or Abdul Hodge — usually come flying in to make the play. Advantage: IOWA.
Michigan State pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense: Jeff Smoker is a senior coming off of a very forgettable junior season. The Spartan QB has done a nice job this fall, completing 60% of his passes for 932 yards, with 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions…for a 138.5 QB rating. Agim Shabaj is Smoker's favorite receiver and Hayes does a good job of catching the ball out of the backfield, which will put additional pressure on the Hawkeyes' front seven.
(Harry Caray would be quick to point out that Agim Shabaj spelled backwards is "Jabahs Miga.")
Iowa has allowed an average of 197 yards passing per game, but its opponents have only 2 TDs in the air versus 7 interceptions. Notre Dame picked off Smoker two times last Saturday, but failed to sack him. Look for the Hawks to bring some pressure to Michigan State's quarterback early. Matt "The Tazmanian Devil" Roth would force any QB into some hurried throws.
Smoker's best bet is probably a three-step drop with a quick release. If he's able to do that with some consistency, it could be as effective as a solid running game. Advantage: PUSH.
Special Teams: Iowa is the best in the country in this category ... again. Two of the great equalizers on the road are special teams and turnovers. It's a great feeling to KNOW that the Hawks will make some plays on special teams each game. Expect more of the same on Saturday. Although this week, Nate Kaeding's biggest contributions should be kicking field goals, not tackling kick returners. Advantage: IOWA.
Coaching: Kirk Ferentz has turned the Hawkeye program around. He was named the National Coach of the Year in 2002 and has led Iowa to 13 straight regular-season victories. John L. Smith is in his first season in East Lansing. It's borderline annoying that he has to go by John "L." Smith, isn't it? What's THAT all about? Does someone think there are TWO John Smiths coaching in the Big Ten? I don't like it. Advantage: K. Ferentz.
Intangibles: Michigan State has the home-field advantage and not much to lose in this one. The Hawkeyes haven't played well in East Lansing of late, losing in 2001 by a 31-28 score…and losing in 1999 by a 49-3 score, in what was one of the all-time WORST games I've seen played by an Iowa team. Tom Poholsky is not available on Saturday. Advantage: MICHIGAN STATE.
PREDICTION: Ever since I first saw Iowa's schedule, this game has really scared me. Why? Because it is sandwiched by a night game against a ranked team on ESPN ... and another nationally-televised game against a Top 10 team, Michigan. I'm worried that the Spartans are quite a bit better than most people give them credit for.
And do you think they'd like to avenge the 44-16 drubbing against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City last season?
If Iowa can avoid giving Michigan State any "short fields," I like the Hawks' chances of coming out of East Lansing with a 1-0 record in the Big Ten. Iowa needs to win the turnover battle and run the ball consistently to beat the Spartans. The Hawkeye defense looked as good as ever last Saturday, so it might not take that many points to secure a victory. If Iowa's front four can put the heat on Smoker early and often…it would go a long way toward earning a victory.
I look for Nate Kaeding to make a late field goal to give the Hawks a lead the defense refuses to relinquish. FINAL: IOWA 26, MICHIGAN STATE 24.
(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)